2016 Season Preview: How About Them Rookies?
Rookies are a hot topic on the Pittsburgh sports scene right now. Those of you who don’t follow hockey may not be aware of just how important the contributions of rookie players were in the run to the Stanley Cup.
Last December the unquestioned Penguins MVP was goalie Marc Andre Fleury. It was only due to his efforts that the Penguins were not quite irrelevant rather than completely so. The team seemed almost lifeless, and many (if not most) fans had written off 2015/16 as a lost season.
As what seemed like a last-ditch effort at the time the head coach was fired and replaced with Mike Sullivan, the coach for the Pen’s AHL affiliate team. Whether this was genius on the part of General Manager Jim Rutherford or mere expediency is not really germane at this point. The point is, Sullivan came in and changed the culture of the team. Part of the way he did that was to bring in a lot of young blood. The big advantage he had was how well he knew the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team members.
At first it seemed as if he had just replaced one set of problems with a different set of them. The team went on to lose their next four games as Sullivan asked the team to get faster, brought up players to make it younger, and asked his players, especially the underperforming stars, to take ownership. The rest is history.
Strangely, there is a certain similarity of narrative with the Pirates this summer. After the team fell into a slump during May and June which caused a certain portion of the fan base to write off any chance of relevance for 2016, an infusion of youth from the team’s AAA affiliate has seemingly sparked the nearly moribund club, and the underperforming star(s) are coming around as well. They enter the All-Star break 7.5 games out of the division lead, which sounds pretty bad until you realize they were more like 15 games out only a few weeks ago.
In this case it didn’t require a coaching change. There was nothing wrong with the clubhouse, to all appearances, but shaking things up a bit and infusing some youth into both the starting rotation and the position players has the Pirates playing like the hottest team in baseball. Which they are, at the moment at least.
I heard a sports radio host trying to make a rookie-to-rookie comparison between the Pens and the Pirates, which is just silly, for a lot of reasons. But it did make me wonder if we are going to look back on the 2016 Steelers season as the Year of the Young ‘Uns, at least on the defense.
We all know that not many rookies played on Dick LeBeau defenses. But when rookie contracts were shortened this created a big problem—by the time a guy saw substantial defensive snaps, sufficient so he could be judged, he was already nearing free agency, and the team only got a year or so of his best play. Keenan Lewis is a name which comes to mind in this regard.
I’m certainly neither qualified nor prepared to say why some of these rookie and young guys didn’t see more playing time, but it was clear Art II felt it needed to change. And change it did. Keith Butler simplified the scheme and the young guys got more playing time.
But this season will really show which way the wind is blowing, because there is an enormous infusion of youth into the secondary in particular. The general feeling of the men who write about the team seems to be that the chances of any of them seeing much time outside of special teams are not very high. The question is, are they right?
One or more of the players could force the hand of the coaching staff by outstanding play, of course. We also know that Mike Tomlin expects Senquez Golson to function like a second-year guy, despite having no snaps at all last year. Although how Tomlin plans to deal with Golson and what he actually expects may of course be two different things.
Last season we saw Bud Dupree make it onto the field rather sparingly at first, and got a lot more snaps as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt went from starting four games his rookie season to being the primary player at his position in his second year.
The Steelers have two veteran starters in the secondary (Mike Mitchell and William Gay) and a whole heap of questions. Will Ross Cockrell win the other starting corner position? Will Golson take over the slot? Will Artie Burns see any time on the field outside of special teams at all? What about Doran Grant, another second year guy who didn’t play any defensive snaps at all? Has Shamarko Thomas figured anything out? Has Robert Golden taken a step forward? Will Sean Smith bypass them both?
I have no idea, but just the idea is exciting. In the old days we would draft these lovely young men and they would sit on the bench watching their illustrious teammates get older. I don’t think that was probably the intention, but if you’re fixed on the idea that “veteranosity” in and of itself has certain advantages, you’re not going to get the rookies on the field as fast.
But as the Pens and the Pirates have perhaps demonstrated this season, the rookies have something unique to contribute as well. And it’s possible they can provide just the needed spark to get the fire going.
I will end with a Mike Sullivan quote reported by Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette. It obviously was about the Penguins, but I’m hoping it is true for this year’s Steelers’ team:
“We really like the mix we have of our veteran players and our young guys that are bringing the energy and the enthusiasm to the rink every day,” Sullivan said. “The veterans have been great mentors for these kids. They’ve done a tremendous job making them feel comfortable. I’ve witnessed that all year long. These guys really enjoy playing for one another. That’s a very powerful dynamic.”